Final Goodbyes of 2012

As the year comes to a close, it’s fitting to remember those who’ve gone but can’t, or shouldn’t be, forgotten.

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Daniel Inouye – Like many Japanese-Americans of his generation, he was reviled, discriminated against, locked away into concentration camps, looked down upon. And like many, to prove his loyalty to his country, he went to war. In Inouye’s case, he suffered, soldiered on and became an honest-to-God American, Medal-of-Honor-winning hero. The story goes that he went into a San Francisco barber shop on his way home, still wearing the uniform of an Army captain (with one sleeve pinned up because he’d lost an arm in the Italian campaign) and the barber refused to cut his hair because he was Japanese. A mark of shame on my hometown. Inouye became the first Asian-American member of the House, and first in the Senate. He died as the most senior member of Congress. He was steadfast in his principles and admired for his humanity.

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Johnny Otis – Brilliant and revolutionary bandleader, showman, musician, developer of talent. ‘Hand Jive’ anyone?

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Etta James – A singer who can get you up dancing and break your heart at the same time. Coincidentally, one of Johnny Otis’ great discoveries.

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Joe Paterno – His players practically worshiped him but his reputation will be forever linked and, therefore, sullied by his connection to a sexual abuse scandal centered around a former assistant.

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Earl Scruggs – A giant. A legend. A pioneer. A person who, defying all odds, brought soulfulness to the banjo.

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Dick Clark – Forget the new year’s eve caricature he became. He broke ground and he sincerely loved teenagers and their music.

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Levon Helm – Listen to him sing. Read his lyrics. You can’t mistake him for anybody else.

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Mike Wallace – The number-one case in point for this axiom: fearless journalists piss powerful people off.

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Maurice Sendak – He turned a very uncertain and unhappy childhood into art adored by millions of children and adults alike.

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Carlos Fuentes – Great writer of brutally honest fiction.

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Doc Watson – Changed the lives of thousands of musicians and maybe millions of fans with his clear and honest singing about the lives of real people.

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Rodney King – Beaten by LA cops, who were filmed doing it. All holy hell broke loose when they were acquitted. Then, in all sincerity, Rodney King asked his townsfolk to get along and stop killing each other. For his efforts, he was turned into a national joke. He deserved better.

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Andy Griffith – On popular TV shows for, like, 50 years but he still died an underestimated and underappreciated actor.

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Ernest Borgnine – Played honest-to-God working-class American men with gravity and honesty. They don’t make guys like him or movies like that anymore, to our great loss.

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Kitty Wells – Raw and honest voice. A trailblazer for women in music. Ran her own life and her own career her way. Also a beautiful, generous and gracious human being.

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Sally Ride – Terms like “role model” and “hero” get thrown around like nickels these days. I just wish kids knew less about people like Britney Spears and Lindsey Lohan and a whole lot more about people like Sally Ride.

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Neil Armstrong – The first line of every single obituary of Neil Armstrong? He was the first man to set foot on the moon. Do you need a second sentence? Every one my age or older remembers the precise moment.

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George McGovern – A war hero who wanted to end the useless and wasteful Vietnam War. As a result, he was chewed up by the Nixon campaign machine and made to look weak, unmanly. He told the truth.

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Margaret DuPont – Graceful, smart, tough as nails. Was she the first American female sports star? Many owe her a great debt of gratitude for making the model many now trade upon.

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Marvin Miller – Created major league baseball as we now know it. Helped players stand up to the organized servitude that was baseball. Hated by many. Hated.

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Hector Camacho – Grew up tough in Spanish Harlem. Became successful, rich, famous. Never lost the chip on his shoulder or need to live wild. Ended bad, as it had to, by a bullet to the head.

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Dave Brubeck – His iconic ‘Take Five’ may be the most recognized jazz song of all time. His bands were tight. His piano was beautiful. He represented his era well.

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Ravi Shankar – Classically-trained. Spiritual. A bridge between very different cultures.

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No Heroes of Mine

We go through it routinely, this cycle. Whether through typically purposeful media hype or other more organic mechanisms, we inflate celebrities to the status of heroes. Then comes the inevitable, but somehow surprising fall of these faux heroes due to their completely predictable human failings.

Maybe the problem lies, not with those we’ve chosen to elevate, but with ourselves and our choices of heroes.

After all, what is it we think a hero is?

A hero is not someone who just does extraordinary feats. If that were true, every circus freak would be a hero. No, a hero is someone who does extraordinary feats: (1) while exposing themselves to risk (physical, emotional, to their reputations) or danger; and (2) doing so in order to benefit others. Examples might include, exploring previously undiscovered places, saving others in time of war, or teaching girls to read in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

By that definition, and I say this as a dedicated fan of sport, there is nothing inherently heroic about athletics; athletics being simply being a category of popular entertainment.

The latest revelations about Lance Armstrong have led to a by-now typical round of hand-wringing about the loss of our “heroes.” At this late date, anyone – and I mean anyone – who holds sports personalities as heroes must be: (1) a child, (2) hopelessly ignorant, or (3) both blind and deaf.

Since 1998, more than a third of the top finishers of the Tour de France have admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs at some point in their careers or have been officially linked to doping.

Major-league baseball’s latest, but by no means only high-profile cheaters, Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colon. Colon was having a solid year and Cabrera was selected MVP of the All-Star game before being caught taking banned performance enhancing substances.

In previous years, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Manny Ramirez were all-star baseball players who used banned drugs.

Olympian and universally-beloved “golden girl” Marion Jones admitted to using steroids.

Want real heroes? Find people worthy of the title.

At the age of 32, Physicist Sally Ride became an astronaut and was the first American woman to orbit the earth. Marine sergeant and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer risked his own life to save 13 US troops and 23 Afghan soldiers by providing the cover in a firefight necessary for their escape. Mohandas Gandhi exposed himself to prison, beatings and ridicule in his fight for Indian rights and independence.

Barry Bonds and his ilk, pardon the expression, aren’t even in the same league.

As long as we continue to elevate entertainment personalities, both athletes and others, to the status of heroes, we’ll continue to go through this wrenching but, in the end, essentially empty and meaningless cycle of apotheosis and public destruction.